'Praxis'

Unconventional Wisdom

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Photos Courtesy of Serge Desrosiers

Masters Nationals this year were held in a small town just north of Montreal called Saint-Calixte.

It was a bit off the beaten path, through winding roads with beautiful lake front views, but well worth the trip.  This was one of those races where your smile is trying to push its way past your grinding teeth.

The Race Before the Race

The race start time was 9 am, and in my usual style, everything feels a bit rushed.  I managed to pick up my race bib and get everything pinned on just so… then I realize…. yes, you know what’s coming: the bathroom lineup is about eight people deep.  I didn’t plan for this kind of delay in preparation.  I should have stopped at that gas station 10 min down the road – no lineup there.

I make my way back to the car and on the way run into several people I know, friends from back east, other riders from the Ottawa area and some friendly competition as well.  Everyone’s discussing the first set of hills and contemplating the cold and wind that we will face on the road.  Whispers of – “What’s the strategy?”  “Is there going to be an early break?”  “Will anyone get away in this wind?”  Who knows?  In the end you have to have a game plan and be confident that in the next 20 minutes there isn’t much you can do to increase your FTP before the start of the race.  So I head back to the car to spin my legs on the trainer for a few minutes to warm-up.

The Course

At the start line we’re finishing the sign-in and setting ourselves in the start grid.  After a short delay, we’re on our way.  The course is a 16 km circuit, repeated 8 times.  Within the first 500m the course turns sharply to the left and uphill for about 1000 meters topping out at approximately 17%.  At the top of the first climb someone shouts out, “Now that was a warm-up!”.

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Nobody laughs. Although true, we are all too serious and many of us are still trying to catch our breath.  A couple of kilometres later, there’s another short steep climb similar to the first – a bit shorter and a bit steeper.  In my mind these would become the ‘one, two punch’.

The first is a left hook and the second an upper cut; if you aren’t ready for them they could put you down for the count.  As one person says on the start line, “you won’t win the race on these climbs but you sure can lose it.”  After the first two climbs, the course continues with some rolling hills until you hit a fast, winding decent where the speeds get up above 83 km/h.  This part of the course is like a roller coaster, as you wind in and out of corners crouched in a tight tuck, the high pitch sound of freehubs hanging in the air as you plow down the hill.  This is where the smile comes in.  The lactic acid flushes from your legs, the adrenalin starts to kick in, then you try like hell to carry your speed as far and as fast as you can through the next set of rollers and corners.  Toward the end of the loop, with two kilometres to go, there’s a sharp left corner that puts us directly into a strong headwind.   The road is also a bit broken up and cracked, but that doesn’t bother most riders too much as we approach the finish line.  It’s going to make for an interesting final sprint.

Now Let’s Talk Strategy

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I’m the only one from the Tekne Cycle Club in my race, so team strategy is out the window.  The course is not really a hill climber’s course, with the mix of short climbs and rolling hills.  The wind is strong with the forecast showing gusts up to 46 km/h.  I’m not built for climbing per se, but at the top I surely have more potential energy than most.  So the fact that the hills are at the start of the lap is good for me and allows the opportunity to catch-up with the climbers who get off the front.  Conventional wisdom would say to sit in and wait for the opportunity to make a move closer to the finish – conserve energy.  I come from a mountain bike racing background, so I find it difficult to let the race evolve in the hands of others.  In mountain biking the gun goes off and everyone rides like hell, trying to manage their energy independently of everyone else in order to achieve their best result.  In road racing your energy and how you use it is affected by those around you – at least to some degree.  However, I’ve also been in races where I sit in and a small break of 5 or 6 riders take off and you never see them again; the day is over at that point.  So today, I chose to go against conventional wisdom and do some work.

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Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

I feel fit going into the race and primed to have a good performance.  I stay with the main pack up the climbs, only putting in effort with the group to make sure I remain with the climbers and some of the better riders.  In the latter half I try to stay with some of the small moves off the front – essentially working too hard, or harder than I should, in order to manage my energy properly.  Toward the end of the second last lap (lap seven for the mathematically challenged), with about 20 km left in the race, my front wheel touches another rider’s rear wheel.  Nobody goes down, but I have two broken spokes and need a wheel change.  The wheel car reaches me quickly, but I still have to chase my way back on.  With a lot of work I manage to catch the group, which is down to about 25-30 riders. But we’re at the bottom of the two climbs… the one, two punch!  I feel like a prize fighter going into round eight – my quads are about to jump off my legs, looking for a life raft to take them to the finish.  I’m determined to get up those climbs with the group, but my legs have something else in mind.  After a hard push to catch the pack, I can’t hold on any longer as we ascend.  I start to drop back, joined by another rider for the rest of the lap.  We keep pushing, knowing that catching the pack is not really an option – but I don’t want to give up.  I’m here to race damn it!  At the end I arrive in 21st place.

My goal of a top 10 finish was not to be, but on a positive note, I felt strong and was able to hang with some of the better riders in the region. Overall the race was well run and the course was challenging and entertaining at the same time.  I look forward to doing another race in Saint-Calixte next year.  Congratulations to the national champions in all categories and kudos to all those who were grinding there teeth and smiling on the inside.

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